US State Department Immediately Should Impose Leahy Law Sanctions on Israeli Unit Responsible for Killing Palestinian-American Omar Assad
(Washington D.C., June 14, 2023) – The U.S. government should immediately impose Leahy Law sanctions on the Israel Defense Forces' Netzah Yehuda Unit following the failure of an Israeli military to carry out a meaningful investigation or provide any accountability against the soldiers responsible for the reckless killing of Palestinian American Omar Assad, said Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) in response to the conclusion of the investigation.
DAWN investigated and documented a pattern of gross and systematic human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law by the Netzah Yehuda unit, including the killing of Assad, and submitted its findings and previously unseen evidence to the State Department for Leahy Law vetting in October 2022.
"The Israeli military investigation was a classic whitewash, finding no one responsible and holding no one accountable for the ruthless killing of a Palestinian-American, which is exactly why the US should sanction the Israeli forces responsible," said Adam Shapiro, Director of Advocacy, Israel/Palestine at DAWN. "The Israeli military's announcement closing the case demonstrates that the Israeli military system is designed to protect soldiers from accountability for human rights abuses and murder."
On January 12, 2022, soldiers from the Netzah Yehuda battalion detained 78-year-old Palestinian-American Omar Assad as they operated a makeshift checkpoint in the center of Jiljiliya village, where Assad lived, approximately 14 km northeast of Ramallah. According to Assad's brother, a resident of the village, who spoke to DAWN on August 27, 2022, the military was rarely seen in Jiljiliya. The soldiers forced Assad out of his vehicle and took him to the courtyard of a house under construction about 100 meters from the intersection where they stopped him. The soldiers left him bound, gagged, blindfolded, and exposed to the elements on a cold night. When other Palestinians detained at the checkpoint went to rouse Assad after the soldiers left they found him dead.
The Palestinian Authority's medical examiner's autopsy report determined that the Netzah Yehuda soldiers' treatment of Assad (blindfolded, gagged, hands tied) induced high levels of stress that directly caused his heart attack and death. His pre-existing medical conditions may have made the effect of the heart attack worse, but those conditions were not the trigger for his death. There is no conceivable way for an Israeli military doctor to determine the proximate cause of death without any examination of the medical records of the body, neither of which occurred in this case.
On October 6, 2022, DAWN submitted a Leahy Law referral of Netzah Yehuda to the U.S. State Department for its systematic and widespread abuses, including the killing of Assad. A month later, Israel announced that it would move Netzah Yehuda out of the West Bank for the first time in the unit's history (November 3) and that it was investigating two soldiers from the unit for possible charges (November 10).
On June 13, the Israeli Military Advocate General's Corps announced that it was closing the investigation into the incident, apparently closing the file. According to Haaretz, the investigation found that there was "no causal link between the failures in the soldiers' conduct when they detained 80-year-old Omar Abdalmajeed As'ad [sic], with the report arguing the soldiers "did not recognize any signs of distress" before Asa'ad died." As such, the military investigators will not file any criminal charges against the soldiers responsible for killing Assad, and will take disciplinary measures only for actions they took, which were undisclosed in the announcement. Furthermore, the investigation's finding that Mr. Assad's death resulted from natural causes is totally disconnected from the maltreatment and abuse Israeli soldiers meted out when they blindfolded, gagged and detained Assad overnight in the cold in his home village of Jiljiliya.
The Haaretz reporting on the investigation also notes, "[t]he investigation's findings confirmed that As'ad was left cuffed, blindfolded and gagged for over an hour. The gag may have impeded his breathing and made it difficult for him to request help, according to sources familiar with the investigation." The Times of Israel reported that the investigators did not review the Palestinian Authority medical examiner's report, which was made available to the investigators, and instead consulted a senior military doctor ""who found that it is not possible to establish that As'ad's death was actually caused by the activities of the forces".
The methodology and conclusions of the investigation demonstrate that the Israeli military sought only to give the appearance of an accountability process, while ensuring that there would be no meaningful outcome. This follows decades of sham investigations by the Israeli military of killings of Palestinian civilians that absolve Israeli soldiers of responsibility in nearly 100% of the investigations they conduct. DAWN's own investigation included documentation from a 2019 legal case against the Israeli military in which the military declared that blindfolding for purposes of temporary detention is not permitted. In Assad's case, the Netzah Yehuda soldiers blatantly and intentionally violated procedure when they blindfolded Mr. Assad. The alleged rationale for detaining the men was so that they would not alert people in the village to the soldiers' presence. As the soldiers held the men in an enclosed courtyard away from where the soldiers were operating, there can be no justifiable operational necessity for blindfolding the men. Yet the investigators apparently did not assess these facts.
The Netzah Yehuda soldiers also gagged Assad, though they did not submit any other detainee to that abuse. If the rationale for detention was to prevent the men from alerting others, it stands to reason that preventing them from shouting would be an operational imperative. Yet the unit soldiers only gagged Assad.
"The Israeli investigation should not be taken at face value as even the reasoning offered for the lack of accountability demonstrates the failures of the process," said Shapiro. "The investigators do not appear to have assessed the fact that the soldiers violated their own procedures when they blindfolded and gagged Assad, nor did they review the relevant medical information concerning the cause of death. This is a whitewash, with an insignificant slap on the wrist for the soldiers, likely because this case received international media attention."
The State Department version of the Leahy Law requires that a unit can avoid sanction for gross human rights abuses if the "government of such country is taking effective steps to bring the responsible members of the security forces unit to justice." This Israeli investigation clearly does not meet the requirements of either Leahy provision and should not be considered as a legitimate remediation measure.
DAWN calls on the U.S. State Department to immediately impose Leahy Law sanctions on Netzah Yehuda and to continue to insist that the Israeli government bring the perpetrators of this gross violation of human rights to justice.